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Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle

Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle

by Andrew Lawson

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By reconsidering Whitman not as the proletarian voice of American diversity but as a historically specific poet with roots in the antebellum lower middle class, Andrew Lawson in Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle defines the tensions and ambiguities about culture, class, and politics that underlie his poetry.Drawing on a wealth of primary sources from across the


By reconsidering Whitman not as the proletarian voice of American diversity but as a historically specific poet with roots in the antebellum lower middle class, Andrew Lawson in Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle defines the tensions and ambiguities about culture, class, and politics that underlie his poetry.Drawing on a wealth of primary sources from across the range of antebellum print culture, Lawson uses close readings of Leaves of Grass to reveal Whitman as an artisan and an autodidact ambivalently balanced between his sense of the injustice of class privilege and his desire for distinction. Consciously drawing upon the languages of both the elite culture above him and the vernacular culture below him, Whitman constructed a kind of middle linguistic register that attempted to filter these conflicting strata and defuse their tensions: “You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.” By exploring Whitman's internal struggle with the contradictions and tensions of his class identity, Lawson locates the source of his poetic innovation. By revealing a class-conscious and conflicted Whitman, he realigns our understanding of the poet's political identity and distinctive use of language and thus valuably alters our perspective on his poetry.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This powerfully terse and clear-eyed book develops an outstandingly useful new perspective on the relation between language and politics in the 1855 Leaves of Grass.”—-Jonathan Arac, author of The Emergence of American Literary Narrative, 1820-1860

“Andrew Lawson's mastery of primary and secondary sources produces an authoritative revisionist reading of Whitman's place in the social system of his day. We are introduced to a Whitman who is edgily confrontational rather than ebullient, and the poetry is refreshed by being read as zestfully combative. Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle is an arresting corrective contribution to current Whitman scholarship.”—-M. Wynn Thomas, author of The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry and Transatlantic Connections: Whitman U.S., Whitman U.K.

“Lawson's learned, extended, and exciting rereading of Whitman's mixed diction in 'Song of Myself' refuses the casual assertion of simple 'democratic zest' in previous accounts; he shows that the unevenness of tone and the rich registers of diction reveal a complex political salience in the poem that earlier readers have missed or not known enough to see. Lawson brings alive the thick history in the Whitman voice.”—-Hans Bergmann, author of God in the Street: New York Writing from the Penny Press to Melville

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University of Iowa Press
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Iowa Whitman Series
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University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2006 the University of Iowa Press
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ISBN: 978-0-87745-973-6


Whitman hoped to orchestrate the entry of Leaves of Grass into literary history through a series of self-publicizing acts. For the first edition of 1855, he placed the portrait of himself by Samuel Hollyer opposite the title page. The portrait shows Whitman with "hat on, shirt open, head cocked, arm akimbo," positively reeking of streetwise physicality in his "first poetic pose," that of the "worker/poet" (fig. 1). Then, some five hundred lines into the poem, a name is abruptly attached to what has been an anonymous "I": "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" (LG 48). Finally, there is the series of three anonymous reviews Whitman published of his own work, beginning in the United States Review, in which he elaborates on his own self-representation: "[o]ne of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free[,] ... self-reliant, with haughty eyes, assuming to himself all the attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman into literature" (CH 34, 35). This self-portrait informs the canonical Whitman, created by F. O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance (1941). "As the son of a common man, as a casual worker in his own turn," Matthiessen tells us, Whitman "knew how the poor really lived"; in his political and economic views he is "typical of the aspirations and struggles of the working class in the America of his time."

But Whitman's identity with "working class" life is not as straightforward as it might seem, even in his own self-representations. In another unsigned review, for the Brooklyn Daily Times, Whitman describes himself as "a man who is art-and-part of the commonalty," a man who so "loves the streets" that he would "leave a select soiree of elegant people any time to go with tumultuous men, roughs, receive their caresses and welcome, listen to their noise, oaths, smut, fluency, laughter, repartee" (CH 43). Here, Whitman delineates the polarized social spaces of antebellum New York: a domestic, feminized space composed of "elegant people" and a homosocial, working-class world of "tumultuous men." But his own position is somewhere ambiguously in between, a liminal space marked by "leaving" one in order to "go with" the other. The Whitman presented here seems to have a foot in both camps. The potentially awkward and unsettling effects of this ambiguous identity are brought out in Stephen Alonzo Schoff's engraving, used as the frontispiece in Whitman's first major revision of Leaves of Grass (1860; fig. 2). Gone is the "rough's" open-necked physicality of 1855. In its place is a much more conventional, head-and-shoulders portrait of a bearded but immaculately coiffured man, wearing a Windsor tie and jacket-the image of a man who appears ready to join a select soiree.

In these self-reviews and revisions, Whitman puts his self-image into circulation as a figure of liminality, constructing an identity that crosses class boundaries with apparent ease. This fluid self, I will be arguing, is a feature of a market society characterized by the notion of exchange. And this marketing of the self is particularly pronounced among a lower middle class whose identities are dependent on both their limited resources and their own resourcefulness. As a journeyman printer who worked variously as a teacher, carpenter, journalist, and government clerk, Whitman belonged to a Jacksonian lower middle class undergoing the transition from an agrarian, artisanal culture to an urban, market economy. The artisan system's hierarchical order of owner-master, skilled journeyman, and apprentice held out the reasonable expectation that apprentices would eventually become masters, achieving not wealth necessarily but at the very least a competency. In medieval guild fashion, buying and selling were carefully regulated according to a list of "just" prices. The essence of the artisan system was small property, craft skill, and self-contracting labor. Artisans were part of the antebellum "lower" middle class because, like shopkeepers and small farmers, they had a measure of independence lacking among the unskilled working class. But their position in society was below that of the larger property holders of the solidly middle class: merchants, professionals, and the new group of factory owners.

What radically unsettles the position of artisans in the Jacksonian period is the rise of the market economy, which substitutes market value for just price and dismantles the hierarchy of the artisan system by replacing apprenticeship with waged labor. The free market's levelling of hierarchy was potentially liberating: it offered the prospect of a new kind of individual mobility and the opportunity to accumulate wealth through market speculation and expansion. But it also introduced a new set of contingencies: the known and familiar rituals of the trades were dissolved by the contractual relations of the market, while journeymen found their living standards driven down and their skills devalued. Whitman's first poetic production is marked by a mixture of self-assertion and anxiety, which can be traced to the uncertain position of the lower middle class as it moves from agrarian folkways to the urban marketplace. Whitman's affirmative statements about the market are made directly in Leaves of Grass and its preface; but the doubts and anxieties are expressed, in a kind of reverse sublimation, through the poetry's unsettling eroticism, its foregrounding of the destabilizing effects of desire. In order to read Leaves of Grass for what it has to say about the market, I want first of all to locate Whitman's position within the Jacksonian lower middle class via an examination of its most spectacular representative, the Bowery b'hoy.

* * *

Whitman's first performance as worker/poet produced the desired response from contemporary reviewers, who almost immediately identified him with the street culture of antebellum New York. Reviewing the first Leaves of Grass, the New York Daily News put together the "crush hat and red shirt open at the neck, without waistcoat or jacket," with the poet's stance, "one hand on his hip and the other thrust into his pocket," to come up with "Walt Whitman, the b'hoy poet," who, writing "on his muscle," produces lines of "extraordinary vigor." The Washington Daily National Intelligencer declared that "[i]f the artist has faithfully depicted his effigy, Walt is indeed 'one of the roughs,' for his picture would answer equally well for a 'Bowery boy.'" A journeyman or apprentice in one of the traditional trades, the Bowery b'hoy emerged from the volunteer fire companies of the 1830s with a new addiction to style and dash that made him a stock figure in the journalism and literary expression of the antebellum period and the hero of Benjamin A. Baker's wildly popular play A Glance at New York in 1848. Strolling the Bowery in his costume of stovepipe hat, red flannel shirt, check trousers, and heavy boots "designed for use in slaughterhouses and at fires," the b'hoy became the incarnation of republican virtue in an urban setting-fiercely independent, self-reliant, and free; he was the "joyous, riotous, rollicking, good-natured b'hoy strutting home from the field of his bloodless prowess." Whitman deliberately cultivated an identification with the metropolitan type of the Bowery b'hoy, providing both his contemporaries and later critics with a literary persona through which to read him.

But who exactly were the b'hoys, and what accounts for the lavish attention paid to them by antebellum writers? Charles Haswell, in his Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York (1896), is emphatic that the b'hoy was "not an idler and a corner lounger, but mostly an apprentice, generally to a butcher." Butchering is described by Sean Wilentz as one of the "strongholds of the artisan system," where a master, once installed, "stood a good chance of prospering" in a still-regulated market able to resist the effects of proletarianization. Butchers thus remained aloof from the trade-union militancy of the workingmen's movement, the "radical journeymen's protest" that had, by the 1840s, failed to resist the downward pressure on wages. In addition, the butchers' daily routines of "intense labor followed by leisurely afternoons and evenings" allowed them greater opportunities than other craftsmen had for recreation and "public show."

The Bowery b'hoy thus "drew his identity from an awareness of a set of cultural images" rather than the collective class consciousness of organized labor. The first words of Mose in A Glance at New York are "I've made up my mind not to run wid der [fire] machine any more," as he begins the problematic process of detaching himself from the "traditionalist" working-class culture represented by the fire company and fashioning himself as an individual actor in a market society (Baker 171). For the rest of the play, Mose is pulled between Bowery and Broadway, rudeness and respectability, through his acquaintance with the business-class Harry Gordon and his greenhorn friend, George Parsells. Mose becomes a liminal figure, involved in a repeated crossing of boundaries. Agreeing to accompany Harry and George to a "ladies' bowling saloon" dressed as women, he is unable to resist kissing the genteel Mrs. Morton (172). Mose then denounces the lower-class denizens of the Loafer's Paradise, a "dirty bar room," as "lazy," explaining that "[t]here's plenty of work in this village for everybody, if they've only a mind to look for it," before breaking the place up with a fight (180). Mose has more irrepressible vitality than the genteel Mortons; but his work ethic is commendable, and his boisterousness is balanced by the vital ingredient of sentiment. Recalling the time he saved a baby from a fire, Mose puts his hand on his heart and declares, "The fire-b'hoys may be a little rough outside, but they're all right here" (183). This message is repeated at the end of the play at the genteel Vauxhall Gardens, where Harry introduces Mose to Mr. Morton, explaining that "[i]n spite of his outré manners, he has a noble heart" (196).

George Foster, in New York by Gas-Light, also attempts to assimilate Mose into the "great middle class of free life under a republic." In the earlier New York in Slices, Foster expands on this point, arguing that the b'hoy's "vulgar rowdyism" is only a distorted expression of his "restrained social instinct, his ambition, his desire to struggle and shine." If the "moral atmosphere" of the city were "purified," the b'hoy would become "a cheerful, industrious, well-to-do, and valuable member of the community," fit to "conquer a piece of the wilderness instead of the Mexicans." But Baker's play ends on a disruptive note, with Mose apologizing to the audience for leaving to help his friend Sykesy out in a fight: "I'm bound to see him righted, 'cos he runs wid our machine, you know" (Baker 196). The ending is offered as an ironic coup de théâtre, but it testifies to the difficulty of any straightforward cooptation of Mose by the middle classes. Running with the machine and dining at Vauxhall Gardens, working at his trade and brawling in a dirty bar, Mose hasn't quite escaped the pull of a traditionalist working-class culture, nor has he gained a secure place in the middle class, despite establishing solid credentials.

A Glance is not so much about "taming" the Bowery b'hoy as an attempt to dramatize the boundaries of a diffuse, lower-middle-class world. The Bowery b'hoy's liminality, his phantasmic, shape-shifting form-loafer-dandy, butcher-boy, member of the great American middle class-is a product of the blurred boundaries of the lower middle class and of an uncertainty about whom these boundaries might include and exclude. For writers like Foster, the b'hoy acts as a symbolic marker of what M. Wynn Thomas describes as a "hopefully imagined, and desperately idealized, middle way between the two antirepublican extremes of new aristocratic wealth and new slum poverty." But this imaginatively constructed space is never really secure, never able to escape the instability and anxiety it attempts to banish.

The artisanal culture of the antebellum period is thus divided and contradictory. Artisans were skilled workers, many of whom hoped to become small capitalists. Caught in one of the key dilemmas of the Jacksonian period, artisan culture looked back to what E. P. Thompson calls the "moral economy" of "labor republicanism," with its group solidarity and ritual, while at the same time looking forward to the life of the liberal individual in an expanded market. Artisan culture, as Wilentz describes it, is an unstable mixture of radical protest and entrepreneurial energy, of traditional bonds and individual self-assertion. Whitman's clashing portraits, depicting him in succession as rude worker and would-be élégant, offer a dramatic representation of the contradictions inherent in the radically unstable image of the Bowery b'hoy.

Whitman responds to the b'hoy as an exemplary, middle-class individualist: "The boy I love," he writes in "Song of Myself," "becomes a man not through derived power but in his own right" (LG 81). "The young mechanic is closest to me," he adds, following this with the affirmation that "there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero" (82, 83). The fact that the b'hoy emerges in the antebellum period as an individual above all else is, I think, an important clue to the kind of class identity he represents, an identity that is more ambiguous than might be apparent in accounts that celebrate his "boisterous working class consciousness." In A Pen-and-Ink Panorama of New York City (1853), Cornelius Mathews observes that the b'hoy was most often "a respectable young butcher" but that he was "sometimes a stout clerk in a jobbing house" and "oftener a junior partner in a wholesale grocery." The artisan-class location of the b'hoy thus overlaps with an emerging white-collar sector in the antebellum city, produced by the growth of manufacturing in competitive markets-a sector comprising "brokers, commission merchants, agents, auctioneers, jobbers, credit reporting agents, advertisers, insurance agents, and freight haulers," the typically atomized individuals of a commercial society.

The Bowery b'hoy belonged to the most mobile and ambitious members of the workforce. Situated precariously at the margins of middle-class respectability, he was a member of the diffuse but distinctive lower middle class of the antebellum period. This "syncretic lower middle class" was composed of both small, independent producers (farmers, artisans, shopkeepers) and the dependent clerks and technicians produced by an emergent industrial capitalist economy. These are the "eager and apprehensive men of small property" identified by Tocqueville as typical Americans-precariously poised between comfort and deprivation in a wildly fluctuating economy. Their vulnerability is voiced by Puffy the baker in Dion Boucicault's popular melodrama set in the aftermath of the 1837 Panic, The Poor of New York (1857): "Down in the world now, sir-over speculated like the rest on 'em. I expanded on a new-fangled oven, that was to bake enough bread in six hours to supply the whole United States-got done brown in it myself-subsided into Bowery-expanded again on woffles, caught a second time-obliged to contract into a twelve foot front on Division street. Mrs P. tends the indoor trade-I do a locomotive business in potatoes, and we let our second floor." The Jacksonian America that shaped Whitman's poetic expression is profoundly marked by this mixture of buoyant self-assertion and anxious exposure to the contingencies of the marketplace.

The members of the lower middle class are what Victor Turner terms "threshold people," those liminal persons who "elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space." The lower middle class is thus by definition a "complex and unstable" grouping, "polymorphous and tangled." What unity it has derives from a "sense of honorable status," marking its members out from what they regard as the unskilled, less respectable, and wholly dependent working classes. The figure of the Bowery b'hoy identified with by Whitman is bound up with the vicissitudes of this anxious, ambitious class and its struggle to create and defend a symbolic space for itself in the contested spaces of the modern city.


Excerpted from Walt Whitman & THE CLASS STRUGGLE by ANDREW LAWSON Copyright © 2006 by the University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Andrew Lawson is a senior lecturer in North American literatures at Leeds Metropolitan University. His articles have appeared in American Literature, American Literary History, and Textual Practice. Walt Whitman and the Class Struggle is the first part of an extended project on class identity and nineteenth-century American literature.

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